Harry Graf (Count) Kessler died 75 years ago today. Posterity primarily remembers the worldly and phenomenally well-connected Kessler as the greatest diarist of the Weimar Republic, as well as much of the Wilhelmine era which preceded it. His posthumously-published journals reveal a pan-European vision sensitive to the tumultuous shifts in society, politics and the arts taking place in those years.
But during his lifetime he was regarded as a tastemaker, in literature, theatre, furnishings and – not least – in the refined vision of elegance which he presented to the world. “He attached great importance to dressing well, considering his friend Richard Dehmel’s predilection for gaudy ties to be something of a moral failing,” says Laird McLeod Easton in The Red Count: The Life and Times of Harry Kessler. “He was famous for his impeccable manners and for his elegant bearing, ‘half diplomat, half Prussian officer’ in the words of Nicholas Nabokov.”
Edvard Munch, whom Kessler set up in a studio, recorded his patron’s sophistication in at least two portraits. McLeod Easton describes the subject in the full-length Munch as an “elegant dandy who dispassionately assesses his viewers as if they were works of art themselves, which may or may not meet his standard”.
And Kessler could be withering in his assessment of those who fell short of that standard, regarding even Gabriele d’Annunzio, for instance, as “a fading coffeehouse Don Juan from an Italian small town” sporting a “no longer new, light lilac necktie”.
Harry Graf Kessler maintained his refinement to his final years, which he lived out in exile. He died on the anniversary of Oscar Wilde’s death; like Wilde, he lies in the Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris.